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The Flop Heard Round the World

Ford's Edsel was the biggest bust in brand history. It didn't live up to the hype of its teaser ads and never gained the glamour of promotions such as this one for the 1958 Edsel Citation.
Ford's Edsel was the biggest bust in brand history. It didn't live up to the hype of its teaser ads and never gained the glamour of promotions such as this one for the 1958 Edsel Citation. (Plan59.com)

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It sounded like a question, but it was a command. Instantly, a gazillion hours of expensive and absurd motivational research went up in smoke.

Why did Breech want to name the car Edsel?

"He was brown-nosing Mr. Ford," says C. Gayle Warnock, now 91, who was the Edsel's public relations director. Warnock is also the author of the 1980 book "The Edsel Affair" and a forthcoming sequel, "The Rest of the Edsel Affair."

When Warnock heard about Breech's decision, he banged out a one-sentence memo to Krafve: "We have just lost 200,000 sales."

"I knew nobody would like that name," he explains on the phone from his home in Sweetser, Ind. "When they did interviews [about names] and asked about Edsel, people always said, 'Did you say pretzel?' "

Grilled to Imperfection

Of course, a company launching a new car needs more than just an image and a name. It also needs, you know, a car.

The Ford folks were working on that. In fact, they were building not one, not two, but 18 varieties of Edsel, including a convertible and a station wagon. Prices would range from $2,500 to $3,800 -- several hundred dollars more than comparable Fords.

The designers came up with some interesting ideas. They created a push-button transmission and put it in the middle of the steering wheel, where most cars have a horn. And they fiddled with the front end: Where other cars had horizontal chrome grilles, the Edsel would have a vertical chrome oval in its grille. It was new! It was different!

Unfortunately, it didn't work. It couldn't suck in enough air to cool the engine. So they had to make it bigger. And bigger.

"They had to keep opening up that oval to get more air in there," says Jim Arnold, who was a trainee in Edsel's design shop. "And it didn't look as good."

Edsel didn't have its own assembly lines, so the cars were produced in Ford and Mercury plants, which caused problems. Every once in a while, an Edsel would roll past workers who were used to Mercurys or other Fords. Confused, they sometimes failed to install all the parts before the Edsel moved on down the line.

Cars without parts can be a problem, of course, but other aspects of the Edsel juggernaut worked perfectly -- the hype, for instance. Warnock and his PR team touted the glories of the cars, but wouldn't let anybody see them. They wouldn't even show pictures. When they finally released a photo, it turned out to be a picture of . . . the Edsel's hood ornament. And hundreds of publications actually printed it!


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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